Paul Dorn: Review of Paper Tiger Television at SFAI
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Paper Tiger Television at the San Francisco Art Institute
Review by Paul Dorn

Review originally published in Socialist Worker, Fall 1992
URL: http://www.runmuki.com/paul/writing/papertiger.html

What passes for news on television--stylish, overpaid and attractively coiffed anchors smiling through the day's disasters, chatting nonchalantly with the weatherperson and pretending to care about the local sports franchise--is transparent nonsense to most viewers. The reliance of the mainstream media on overwhelmingly white male reporters, pundits and experts creates even greater distance between reality and its representation on the tube. Making the case against the broadcast media isn't very difficult. What's more difficult is creating an alternative to the corporate networks.

With the greater accessibility of video recording and editing equipment, the possibilities for greater popular participation in television have expanded enormously in recent years. The visceral impact of the taped beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King demonstrates this. Television is a powerful medium for communication, for creating consciousness, for inciting action.

One group that is attempting to turn the tables on the corporate media is Paper Tiger Television. Created in 1981 by artists and disaffected independent producers in New York, Paper Tiger is now a bi-coastal grouping of video activists and media enthusiasts. Their programs on cable system public access channels are often crude and imperfect, with primitive hand-painted sets and credits scribbled on poster board with felt-tip markers. The visible seams, missed cues and sloppy effects are in actuality a self-conscious statement against the "slick production values" of commercial television. The cost of creating each installment is typically shown at the end: "This program cost $73." By mocking the costly, technocratic and elitist approach of the networks, Paper Tiger attempts to encourage interactive, creative television.

In October Paper Tiger began a five-week residency at the San Francisco Art Institute, which includes an installation, Smashing Myths of the Information Age. Each weekly series of video screenings exposes a particular media fallacy: The Myth of Discovery, The Myth of Free Information, The Myth of High Art, The Myth of Choice and the Myth of Equality. The videos include one of the first Paper Tiger productions, "Herbert Schiller Reads the New York Times." The UC San Diego professor delivers a humorous and frightening translation of all the news that's "fit" to print, revealing the service the national paper of record performs for the American ruling elite. By extension, the same service is performed by the television networks.

Paper Tiger's residency at the Art Institute also included several discussions, a media fair, a street art workshop, and a closing day garage sale of the equipment used during their residency. The emphasis was on providing participants the information needed to take up video activism on their own. An important part of this is the small volume, The Paper Tiger Guide to TV Repair. This humorous how-to guide includes advice on filming demonstrations, dealing with hostile cops, using cable access, and even explores the possibilities presented by videophone technology.

Notably missing from Paper Tiger's expose is any examination of the myths of the workplace, where people spend the majority of their lives. The exhibition at the Art Institute reflects the current identity politics orientation of much of the left. There is also a misguided expectation that visual imagery can spontaneously create greater popular opposition to the ruling class; as if greater numbers of amateur camera operators could substitute for class struggle. The Paper Tiger exhibit is effective at exposing the way television distorts reality to suit the prerogatives of corporate elites. It is useful to encourage more people to question what they view in the mass media, to consider the news they consume more critically, to begin to realize their own creativity in the medium. Useful, but not sufficient. Journalists, no matter how broadly defined, how honest, or how numerous, have never changed society. Exposing capitalist malfeasance can help raise class consciousness, but can't substitute for class struggle.

The medium of television has been egregiously abused under capitalism. As with every other technological innovation, capitalists have adapted television to their own ends. They have appropriated the airwaves to support their system by encouraging consumerism, cultivating passivity and spreading disinformation. The potential of television--as an art form, as entertainment, as an educational vehicle, as a means of communication--has been diverted. Ultimately, realizing the greater potential of television will require the revolutionary appropriation of the studios, the cameras and the satellites.


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